A large yellow storage tank sits on the side of the road, surrounded by thin wire fencing.
An above-ground storage tank accompanies the orphaned well on Cindy Dotson's property. Credit: Sarah Elbeshbishi / Mountain State Spotlight

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WEST UNION — Nearly 20 years ago, Cindy Dotson bought more than 200 acres of farmland and forest in her native Doddridge County. The property is beautiful — but there’s one part Dotson doesn’t care for. At one end sits a massive, yellow tank painted with a bygone advertisement: an eye sore that renders the section of property mostly useless.

The ten-foot above-ground storage tank, accompanied by an underground oil or gas well and guarded by barbed wire and wooden stakes, is just one of the thousands of orphaned oil and gas wells littered across the state.

With no living mineral rights owner and no existing operator, the oil tank and well have sat untouched on Dotson’s property for the last 15 years. She’s concerned about its proximity to a creek, where cattle used to drink. And now, she leases the land to tenants who share those concerns.

“We would just like it to be plugged so that we can reclaim this property, and we never have to worry about anything leaking out of it,” Dotson said. At times, she says she sees a film she thought was oil leaking at the base of the tank but has never been able to confirm it.

But unless she shells out the cash herself, the well will remain a concern for Dotson until the state gets around to plugging it.

Both orphaned and abandoned wells no longer produce oil or gas. But abandoned wells still have a solvent owner, while orphaned wells don’t — either because the company went out of business or there is no existing record of the driller. So here, the responsibility of plugging and remediating these wells falls to the state. And it’s a massive undertaking that West Virginia regulators don’t have many resources to tackle.

Now, the state is getting some help: up to $212 million from the federal government to plug orphaned wells. But even then, for West Virginia, it’s only a drop in the bucket.

Federal boost to tackle orphaned wells

Thousands of orphaned wells are littered throughout West Virginia but are most heavily concentrated in Ritchie, Tyler and Doddridge counties. Some date back to the early 20th century, while others are more recent. Some are hazardous and leak large amounts of methane, while others don’t. But all are a result of operators abandoning them after bleeding them dry of their natural resources.

Under West Virginia law, oil and gas companies are responsible for plugging and remediating their wells, and a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection says the agency often pursues enforcement measures. But despite that, wells across the state remain abandoned and unplugged.

Now, this new influx of federal cash from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will allocate $4.7 billion to states, tribes, and the Federal Bureau of Land Management in an effort to address some of the damage left by the oil and gas industry, according to the federal Department of the Interior.

The newly established federal program is a key part of the Biden administration’s efforts to curb the release of methane — a greenhouse gas that greatly contributes to global warming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the unplugged, non-producing oil and gas wells emitted 275,000 metric tons of methane in 2020; equivalent to emissions of more than 1.7 million gasoline-powered vehicles driven in one year.

West Virginia’s DEP, along with 23 other states, received an initial $25 million grant from the federal program earlier this year, which is the first of three expected rounds of funding the Biden administration is set to award. With that, the state’s Office of Oil and Gas estimates it can plug 202 orphaned wells in West Virginia, which it has decided to outsource to contractors, despite criticism.

Beyond the initial grant, West Virginia is likely to receive a total of $117 million in formula grant funding and has an opportunity to receive an additional $70 million through the performance grant portion of the federal funding — resulting in an overall total of $212 million.

Slim chance of funding for undocumented oil wells

Historically, progress on remediating orphaned wells has been slow. The state used to only be able to afford to plug one or two wells a year. More recently, state lawmakers directed more money to the issue, which enabled the DEP to remediate six wells last fiscal year and 22 this fiscal year, according to spokesman Terry Fletcher.

But the $212 million boost in federal funding will speed up the pace. It could go as far as to help plug roughly 1,700 orphaned wells. However, this would still only be a fraction — about 26% — of the documented orphaned wells scattered across the state.

In reality, the need could be much larger because the exact number of wells isn’t known, largely due to the fact that wells drilled before 1929 were not required to be registered with the state. Because of that, there are tens of thousands of undocumented orphaned oil and gas wells scattered throughout the state, according to the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey. And the state’s current estimates also don’t account for all the thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells that are likely to become orphaned in the future.

“This is just scratching the surface,” said Ted Boettner, a senior researcher at the Ohio River Valley Institute. “That’s just the orphaned wells. There’s another 12,000 abandoned wells and tens of thousands of undocumented orphaned wells in West Virginia.”

Among those undocumented orphaned wells is the one on Dotson’s property.

Dotson maintains the fencing around the giant above-ground storage tank that accompanies the well, fearful of a car hitting it and causing a leak — all she really can do at this point.

The monthly visits by a gathering company to empty the tank stopped years ago when there were no longer any remaining living mineral rights heirs and Dotson couldn’t get anyone else to pump the tank. She even briefly considered plugging the well herself, but the cost was too high to afford.

Now, her frustration is only further exacerbated by the slim chance that any portion of the millions in federal funding the state is getting will go towards the well on her land because of its undocumented status.

“So, again, we can do nothing. We’re stuck,” Dotson said. “So, what is the state doing for these undocumented orphaned wells? If there’s thousands of them, they need to do something about them also.”